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  • Writer's pictureHannah Bywater

Sumatran Orangutans


Sumatran orangutans are one of three species of orangutan. Translated from the Malay language, orangutan means “person of the forest”. These great apes share 97% of the same genomes as humans. They eat mostly fruits, leaves insects and bark. I share a favourite fruit with these apes, mangosteens… Yum! Sumatran orangutans can only be found on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. They used to be dispersed across the entire island but now they are restricted to the north.

They live amongst the rainforest. Orangutans are arboreal beings, which means they live in the trees. Spending over 90% of their time in the tree canopies, very rarely touching the forest floor. With their long arms that can span up to 7ft fingertip to fingertip, they swing through the forest canopy to get around.

When orangutans aren’t traveling, they are likely eating or sleeping. Similar to other apes, orangutans build nests to sleep in. Every day they pick a new spot and in minutes strategically weave branches into a bowl to create a stable and comfortable place to rest. They always take comfort into consideration. Some nests are more luxurious than others,

with big leaves for shelter or blankets and pillows made of smaller leafy branches. Infant orangutans start practicing nest building at 6 months and gain proficiency in about 3 years. They learn everything they need to know from their mamas. Infants will stay in the company of their mamas until they are 6-7. Female orangutans give birth to one infant every 8-9 years, so the reproduction of this species is very low.


These beautiful creatures are critically endangered, with just over 14,600 left in the wild. Their biggest threat is loss of habitat. As orangutans live their lives in the rainforest, they are susceptible to the logging industry. Deforestation is destroying their home at an extreme rate. The palm oil industry has proven to be a major threat to the livelihood of many native species to the island, including the Sumatran orangutans, elephants, rhinos, tigers . Palm oil plantations are inhabitable for most species. Oil palm trees do not have sufficient nutrients for animals to feed from. I have walked through a palm oil plantation and its lifeless. Well, there are ants but that was the only form of life I saw. I couldn’t even hear birds chirping in the distance.

Each palm tree sucks 40 litres of water a day from the ground water. Local people living in these regions of the rainforest are also now at risk of running out of fresh water. How ironic is that to be in a ‘rainforest’ without water! A palm oil plantation can be up to and larger than 800 football fields in size. This completely obliterates the natural ecosystems and wildlife habitat. Being arboreal creatures, and not knowing how to efficiently navigate on the ground, orangutans are often stranded in small patches of forest & left to die of malnutrition & dehydration. In some instances they are found and can be helped to relocate. In some instances they are not so lucky. In this vulnerable state they are susceptible to being captured for a whole other ball game, the illegal pet trade.



The methods of logging on the island are invasive, unethical and more often than not illegal. A popular technique is called slash and burn, deliberately starting forest fires because its cheaper than using the machinery. These fires get so big they become to hard to handle, go out of control putting the animals, people and natural environment at risk. Without the tree canopy orangutans are very slow moving on the ground, there have been cases of them getting caught in the fires and burning to death.

For the ones that make it out alive they get displaced from their natural habitat and forced into proximity of human developments. This can lead to human orangutan conflict. Out of desperation from fleeing the forest fires, there have been times where orangutans have wandered into plantations and villages to seek salvation. Due to fear or annoyance from crop raiding orangutans are often killed.

Since 1931 orangutans have been protected by Indonesian legislation which prohibits the killing, capturing or owning of the species. Despite this, these actions are still being committed illegally and there is a problematic lack of law enforcement against it. The hunting of orangutans is another threat they face. Orangutans are hunted for medicinal purposes and meat.

Females are often accompanied by their offspring. When a mama is killed the infants are very vulnerable. After facing the trauma of watching their mama die, they get stripped off of her dead body and forced into a life of captivity. Baby orangutans are considered a prized possession and often used as a status symbol. Only for the first 3-5 years of their lives, then they become strong and express aggression. At this point they either get killed or traded off again. While the baby orangutans are being bounced around the illegal pet trade, they are not properly taken care of. There are organizations trying to rescue these orangutans and when successful they are found in poor health and beaten with horrific injuries. With little to no punishment for these crimes, the illegal pet crime will continue to endanger hundreds of species and threaten orangutans to extinction.

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